Paul offers these instructions about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 (all biblical references are to the NIV):
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor. 7:1–3, 6–9)
We might be aghast as we read Paul’s instructions here. Is he really saying that the purpose of getting married might be to curb our own sexual immorality? Where is the romance, Paul? Aren’t you the one who penned the “love” passage just six chapters later in 1 Corinthians 13—one of the most famous wedding texts there is? I doubt many of us have heard 1 Corinthians 7 read at a wedding ceremony! But here it is as plain as day: Paul instructing us to stay single unless doing so would cause us to be sexually immoral. A little later in this passage, Paul gives us further rationale for his recommendation:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32–35)
In other words, Paul’s instructions about marriage and singleness do not stem from a restrictive, prudish, anti-sex attitude. Rather, his view of marriage and singleness is fundamentally Christ-focused: He instructs us to adopt whatever life vocation that will offer us the best opportunities to serve Christ.
Oftentimes we think of our “vocation” in terms of career, but that simply highlights our tendency to compartmentalize our lives. For Paul, vocation includes not only career but even our relational status. Paul says that we each have our own gift from God, some to singleness and others to marriage; some to education, others to tent-making. No one vocation is to be idealized or expected of all Christians; rather, we are to be fully devoted to Christ in whatever vocation we have been called. For some, we may be called to the vocation of singleness, to others the vocation of marriage. For still others, we might be called to the vocation of singleness for a period of our lives and marriage at a later period. In short, according to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians, the ideal Christian existence is not a fulfilling marriage but is fully committed discipleship to Christ.